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Lele mask

Lele mask
Lele maskLele maskLele maskLele mask
Tribe: Lele
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Ritual: Regulatory
Name: Unknown
Materials: Wood, cowries, raffia, beads
Provenance: Ralph Proctor Gallery Pittsburgh1992-2002. Andrew Turley, SuagaCollection 2002.
Comments: Candice Ranelli of the Ralph Proctor Gallery estimated the age at circa 1940.

The 20,000 Lele people occupy the western region of the Kuba kingdom and live from hunting and agriculture. The Lele are believed to have come from the area of Lake Tumba and Lake Leopold II with the Kuba crossing to the east of the Kasai River only after clashes with the Bushong (Kuba sub-group).

The Lele are a matrilineal society, organised around age grades. The largest political system is the village, ruled nominally by the village chief who is the most senior male of the founding clan, but it is actually controlled by a balance of power between age sets (Mary Douglas 1963: 68-77:110).

The art of the Lele is not well known and generally lumped in with that of the Kuba as it is similar in style - except for the masks which have a flattened shape. Their most prominent art forms are carved drums, divination instruments, boxes, pipes and palm wine cups. Lele carvers also produce statuettes and masks. The masks are generally rare and their function is little known.

Several theories on the use of the mask exist, including its use in the funerary rites of a chief (Francois Nyet 1981:173 & Jean Baptiste Bacquart 1998:173) and as one of the 3 masks used in the annual foundling celebrations (Felix 1987:74). Essentially they are used in a similar way to the Kuba who share the creation myth with the Lele.

The similarities to the mask picture from the Smithsonian are the arched brow lines running to the ear "nubs” and the long elongated nose drawing down to a set of pursed protruding lips (also seen in Tribal Arts of Africa 1998:75). Candice Randell of the Ralph Proctor Gallery indicated that the ear nubs are a often a good indication to ritual authenticity and funerary use - naturalistic ear shapes or no ears are more likely to indicate entertainment use.

The helmet arrangement on this mask is not original in line with the age of the carving, but it is in line with the masks style and influences.


  1. University of Iowa, Art and Life in Africa Project and UIMA. Stanley Collection Database.
  2. "Kingly Things”. Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art.
  3. Candice Ranelli, Ralph Proctor Gallery. Pittsburgh. 2002.
  4. The Tribal Arts of Africa, J.B. Bacquart. 1998.